Tuesday, January 26, 2010

The Prison Biz

At year's end 2008 (the last point for which the data's available), there were 1.6M prisoners in the US. That's about 0.5% of the population.

The growth rate has slowed since the turn of this new century, and now averages an increase of "only" 1.8% per year, way down from the go-go years of the 1990's, when the average annual rate of increase was an astounding 6.5% each year. (Source: US Department of Justice.)

I've been thinking about prisons because I just finished a very interesting book, Life Apart: Women, Prison, and Life Behind Bars by Christina Rathbone. The book provides some history of women's prisons, centering on Massachusett's prison in Framingham, but the heart of the book is her profiles of a handful of women she befriended at Framingham, all of whom are doing time for non-violent, drug-related crimes - a characteristic shared by the majority of female prisoners. (The book's been out a couple of years, but it's definitely not out of date, and I highly recommend it.)

Running through Rathbone's book is a thread of details: clear tooth paste containers; the clothing brands available in the prison canteen; high-caloric-high carb diets to keep prisoners logy and subdued.

Which got me thinking about the prison biz which, with its still "enviable" growth rate, represents a major US industry - and one that won't be all that easy to off-shore, either.

As it turns out, this week the American Correctional Association (More than 135 years of global excellence) is holding it's winter conference in Tampa, Florida.

There are a lot of products being showcased there:

OraLine is proud to introduce the first complete line of ADA Accepted Clear Toothgel, designed specifically for all correctional needs...ADA Acceptance will mean less inmate resistance to the introduction of the clear toothgel. OraLine’s brand means that you don’t have to pay national brand prices to receive national brand quality.

If it's not all that obvious to you why toothpaste and its container needs to be clear, it's to prevent prisoners from hiding contraband.

You can use that clear toothpaste with a security toothbrush "designed to inhibit the construction of shanks."

Same goes for the Bend-EZ pen:

* Totally flexible makes it difficult to use the pen as a weapon.
* Clear Barrel reduces contraband.

Try the NEW Washable Blue Ink. Stop wasting time and money trying to wash ink stains; gang symbols, doodling and other pen stains out of inmate’s uniforms. Simply launder as usual. No pre-wash required. Wipes right off of most surfaces with moist towel. Stop spending money repainting walls and furniture. Simply wipe with a wet towel.

There are shoes with no metal shanks. Clear-chassis typewriters. Clear chassis flat-screen TV's.  Non-confrontational board games. As well as products that don't seem to have any specPrison typewriterific correctional angle: hard candies that  look like they'd make handy mini-weapons during a food fight; Tito's pickled jalapenos; institutional sized laundry machines.

It's totally hideous that prisons are one of our few growth industries, especially when you consider - as Rathbone does - how many of those in prison are serving mandatory sentences that seem disproportionate to the crime (often non-violent and drug-related). These sentences may have been established in part to introduce more fairness into the system,  but they're also in large part the sort of knee-jerk reaction to getting tough on crime that so many politicians fall prey to because they don't want to appear soft and weak (which is, apparently, where nuance always gets you).

But, boy, walking the floor of this trade show would sure be interesting, wouldn't it?


Interestingly, I never think of myself or my family and friends as having anything whatsoever to do with the prison population, other than, perhaps, through volunteer work. We are, after all, so incredibly well-educated, middle class, law-abiding, nice. But it doesn't take long to come up with a number, well within the six degrees of separation.

A while back, I wrote about my old friend "L", now in prison in the Midwest for attempted murder of her children.

The boy next door growing up is in Federal lock up for buying kiddie porn. I always found him creepy - our neighborhood was plagued by a peeping Tom prowler when I was in high school, and I always suspected this guy - but I never would have suspected this.

My husband had a childhood buddy in Bellows Falls, VT, who dropped out of Fordham for the criminal life. Although he hasn't seen this guy in 40 years, Jim would often talk about his 'gangster friend.' Gangster friend, indeed. Jim's old friend became part of the Irish gangs of NY. He was implicated in some attempted hit on a member of the Mafia, and John Gotti put a contract out on him.  Gotti missed, but the friend is now doing hard time for 2nd degree murder.

A friend of mine had a classmate at Boston College who, a few years ago, murdered his girlfriend. The sordid story involved a married man from a prosperous and well-known family; a young woman who worked for a noted state politician; an expensive motor boat; a cover-up conspiracy; a brother who squealed; a body never found. The stuff of TV crime shows, and, in fact, I saw a story on this case on a true-crime show.

An in-law had a cousin who spent a few years in prison for some sort of collection agency fraud. My brother knows a local pol who's in the stir for a DUI hit-and-run.

Maybe that high number of folks in prison isn't so shocking, after all.

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